30 March 2014

BIFF 2014 #3: MANHUNTER (Michael Mann, 1986, US)

Manhunter was Mann’s third feature and followed the critical and commercial failure of The Keep. Given Mann’s current status as a director of considerable pre-eminence, Manhunter continues to grow in critical stature and could even be claimed as a cult film today. While all the typical Mann obsessions are evident, this is very much a film about ‘seeing’. Both Will Graham and Dollarhyde are parallel figures and seeing is refracted through video, photos and a voyeuristic gaze, but what they are trying to ‘see’ is invisible as it resides in a metaphysical void. Like many of Mann’s films, Manhunter visualises space and particularly architecture as an integral component of the mise-en-scene so that the metaphor of the double becomes projected into a postmodern space of anxiety. When released in 1986, Manhunter may have been ahead of its time. It is a work that cultivated an influential neo noir visual style through the use of blue filters, ambient new age music and crime idioms, all of which act as authorial signifiers. The idea of seeing and the refusal to starts almost in the first scene on the beach. Crawford places a photo of a family upside down on a piece of driftwood they are both sitting on. At first, Graham refuses to see in fear of his family but he is compelled to do so by the secret pleasures he finds in seeing, watching and gazing. As a genre piece, Manhunter is a superior neo noir thriller but it transcends such attempts to pin it down through an intellectualism in terms of form, style and ideology. Perhaps certain elements of the new age soundtrack fail to click today, reminding us of Manhunter’s 1980s context. It is hard to comprehend but Manhunter was the last film Mann directed in the 1980s, taking a hiatus (six long years to be exact) that would see him return to feature filmmaking in the early 1990s with The Last of the Mohicans (1992). I do feel it is time that Mann’s much maligned The Keep (1983) be resurrected and restored to its original three hour cut envisioned by the director. Only then can a reassessment be undertaken to fairly situate Mann’s cinema in the 1980s. I should mention the stellar cast, another Mann authorial intuition; William Petersen, Kim Griest, Dennis Farina, Brian Cox, Joan Allen and Tom Noonan are all perfectly cast and deliver terrific work. Finally, the ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti shot the film, marking the first of many collaborations with Mann.

29 March 2014

BIFF 2014 #2: DOUBLE PLAY (Gabe Klinger, 2013, France/Portugal/US)

Director Gabe Klinger introduced his film, contextualising the work as part of a French series of documentaries on cinema titled ‘Cinéma, de notre temps’. In many ways, Double Play follows in the line of such authorial appreciation of directors who demand to be revered. Klinger’s documentary on Richard Linklater and James Benning is an extended love letter that finds a commonality between the directors in their preoccupation with time. Whereas Linklater has worked almost on the margins of mainstream American cinema, Benning is altogether more independent in the way he makes films. The real pleasure of this documentary is listening to Linklater and Benning talk candidly about their concerns, approach and general love of film as an art form that defines their very existence. Benning’s work continues to be a blind spot for me and I am planning to fit it a few films at the festival in the coming week. As for Linklater, I have long been a fan of his work but more importantly of his capacity to resist the temptations of Hollywood and maintain a stoic independence in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Klinger’s documentary certainly underlines Linklater’s remarkable ability to retain philosophical attitudes cultivated from films as early as Slacker. Even more extraordinary is the portrayal of Benning who comes across as a polymath with interests in painting, construction and politics. As a documentary, Klinger mixes the poetic and observational modes but at the same time pays homage to both Linklater and Benning by directly replicating their signature camera style in playful ways. The admiration is infectious and clocking in at 70 min, this is an essential introduction and considered reminder of Linklater and Benning's sincerity as film auteurs in a world in which 'selling out' seems to be the default option.

28 March 2014

BIFF 2014 #1: BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, 2013, US) - The Outsider

Blue Ruin is the first film I have seen at the BIFF and I hope to see many more in the coming days. I am also determined to post regularly as my blogging habits of late have been pretty terrible. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a drop out who seems to have landed on earth from a distant galaxy. We get the impression that Dwight enjoys the disconnection from mainstream society, as it seems to be a choice predicated on non-conformity. Conversely, it transpires his resistance is an impulse predicated on a past history in which he seems to have become anchored existentially. Blue Ruin is an American independent film directed by cinematographer turned director Jeremy Saulnier. This is Saulnier’s second feature and while the revenge narrative is altogether familiar in terms of traditional storytelling the neo noir idioms and elliptical editing make for a suspenseful thriller. The Hitchcockian idea of pure cinema is an aspect of the film that I found very intriguing. The first thirty minutes in particular dispense with dialogue and rely on us trying to piece together fragments of a narrative. Saulnier’s real interests remain with what is essentially a character study of Dwight and exploring the antagonism of familial relations. Additionally, the film also gradually emerges as a meditation on violence, recalling the work of the Coen Brothers such as Blood Simple. The transformation (a slight one to say the least) of Dwight from an impotent male to a man who knows how his way around a firearm conflates a masculinity in crisis complex with a savage lawlessness, conjuring a morally corrupt universe. If revenge becomes a downward spiral from which he cannot escape, it is also a means by which Dwight can challenge perceptions about his own identity, formulated a new one along the way that desperately seeks a closure to the past. The dark humour that pops up intermittently reminded me of the recent Norwegian thriller Headhunters (2011). The trajectory of Dwight which seems doomed from the outset pushes the film to an ending that seems a little too predictable. Nonetheless, Blue Ruin is still a terrifically crafted neo noir mood piece featuring a stand out performance by Macon Blair.